The silence of the Lions

E Leung
Nathan Road

Whenever I ask my American friends what they know about Singapore, I draw mostly blank stares.

Here in the United States where I’ve lived for over two decades, most are terribly uninformed about The Lion City. They may remember an American boy caned a while back or cite its ban on chewing gum or praise their experiences with Singapore Airlines. But almost nobody is aware of Singapore’s role as America’s ninth largest trading partner, or that the two countries conduct joint military exercises or that President Bush lavished praise on Singapore for being a staunch ally on the war against terrorism. I’d be surprised if half can even find Singapore on a map.

The few Americans who volunteer additional impressions of Singapore usually express one of two extreme positions. Some say Singapore is a medieval dictatorship where an evil sultan enforces his will with chains and torture chambers. Others, particularly those who have visited, claim Singapore is an idyllic bastion of democracy, freedom and rule of law. “Disneyland with the death penalty”, a Los Angeles Times writer once put it.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.

Singapore is undoubtedly governed by a one-party dictatorship led by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). But unlike authoritarian regimes elsewhere, there are no surly government thugs kidnapping dissidents in the dead of night breaking bones and extracting confessions.

In the Lion City, Americans would find a more sophisticated form of dictatorship, a sort of dictatorship with a double latte. Dissent is crushed not with violence on the streets but with verdicts in the courtroom. Opposition candidates rarely garner enough votes because Singaporean law, written by PAP legislators, renders it easy for government officers to sue their own citizens for slander — a concept laughable in genuine democracies. Understandably, most Singaporeans prefer to remain silent (or at least temper their criticisms) than risk having their lives ruined by PAP-initiated lawsuits.

But intolerance for dissent silences more than just the lions in Singapore. It also renders Singaporeans invisible abroad.

Singaporeans I’ve met here in Los Angeles are mostly good-natured people, speaking unaccented English and enjoying successful lives. But while exemplifying the American dream, they’re also a people who seem painfully ordinary and unwanting of attention — like those desperately trying to avoid eye contact.

I remember my walks to class as a university student at UCLA a few years ago and passing recruiting booths for various student associations. Almost every nationality had some sort of organization: Hong Kong Student Union, Korean Student Association, Filipino Union, etc. That is, every nationality except Singapore, despite the several hundred Singaporeans enrolled there. There was even one for Macau, a country with barely one-eighth of Singapore’s population.

Elsewhere in American society, Singaporeans seem equally invisible.

In the legendary Asian communities of Los Angeles, many Asians flaunt their ethnicity and wave their homeland flags with pride. Most adopt a hyphenated label (“Taiwanese-Americans”, for example) to stress one’s heritage along side their American identity. They may march against injustice inflicted on their people in street demonstrations. Some even run for political office, touting their nationality and immigrant status as an asset. Asian-American pride can be boisterous, omnipresent and even controversial.

But not from Singaporeans. In the United States, they remain silent, going about their business on the fringes of American consciousness. In all my time in America, I cannot remember ever seeing a Singaporean flag or political activity involving Singaporean issues. No wonder Americans dont know anything about Singapore.

Perhaps Singaporeans appear absent because there are fewer of them in America than, say, immigrants from Hong Kong. But it isn’t just a matter of less Singaporean pride in America. It’s a matter of NO Singaporean pride.

But this is hardly surprising. Most in Singapore also seem to choose apolitical and unnoticed lives. This tendency remains a legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s dictatorial Founding Father who engineered a nation of people domesticated through intimidation and force. “If you don’t fear me, then I’m meaningless”, he once boasted (let’s see an American president try to get away with saying that). Even today, Singaporean sheepishness remains so stubbornly in place, the government must coax citizens into activism, like the Youth Consultation Exercise earlier this week.

Granted, it’s arguable Singapore’s apolitical nature contributed to the volcanic rise of Singapore’s economy. But that was a different era, before the advent of globalized economies and when communism and despotism infested half the planet. Today, almost all nations agree that true democracy, freedom and capitalism form the tripod for a happy, prosperous and enduring society. It’s an agreement that seems to fall upon deaf ears amongst PAP elites.

So while Lee succeeded in erecting a first-class city, he also succeeded in engineering a submissive population afraid to assert individuality, whether at home or abroad. And that’s unfortunate. Their culture has much to offer here in the United States, with its exotic blend of East and West with a pinch of Islam. A Singaporean stitch would be a treasured addition to the American cultural fabric — if only Singaporeans would cease hiding behind it.

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